Working in J'lem: Keep the home fires burning

Working in Jlem Keep t

Doni Fuld, father of six, makes a modest living from minding vacation apartments in Jerusalem. Though nobody's home when he collects the mail and checks for leaks - and brings in a painter, plumber or electrician as needed - assuring peace of mind for his long-distance clients is his sole satisfaction. It is not, he emphasizes, his paycheck. "I'm in business, but I don't care about business," asserts Fuld. "The most important thing is the human element. What gets me out of bed in the morning is my desire to help people." Fuld grew up in Queens, New York, one of five sons of former SAR Academy principal Rabbi Yonah Fuld and his wife, Mary, who now live in Israel. Fuld worked as a counselor at the camp run by the Hebrew Academy for Special Children. "I just melted into it," he recalls. At 18 he worked at a group home for developmentally disabled men run by Ohel Children's Home and Family Services. "Every spare minute I had during college, I was at Ohel," he says. Before completing his master's at Yeshiva University's Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Fuld got an offer to run a group home in Brooklyn. But a greater attraction drew him. In Israel for his brother's wedding in 1994, he reconnected with Ruthie Portal, a fellow Camp Hillel alumna. In 1995, they married and made aliya. Intending to start a residence for disabled adults here, Fuld worked for a succession of organizations to learn the ropes of group-home management. But after several years he felt that the complicated logistics of such an endeavor would be beyond him. And then his rabbi from Queens, Simcha Krauss, asked him to keep an eye on his new apartment in Jerusalem. "That's how things began," says Fuld. Word spread, and soon he was looking after another apartment for absentee owners. And then another. The volume of inquiries convinced Fuld of the demand for a full-time service. "It went from a favor to delving into the professional guidelines of what I do," says Fuld, whose mother came up with a name - Home & Guardian - for her son's accidental business. Whether his clients are affluent or middle income, he keeps his fees to a bare minimum and often waives charges for billable extras. "I don't care how much money they have," says Fuld. "I take pride that I'm not one of the many people with a hand in their pocket." André Weiss, an attorney from New Rochelle, N.Y., was among Fuld's first customers. "We were immediately impressed by his client-service focus and personal attention," says Weiss. "He provides assistance to our daughter - who made aliya a while back - without compensation because of the mensch he is." To better understand the business he was entering, Fuld consulted with contractors and British-trained Jerusalem construction engineer Tim Lawson, who taught him that "there's a whole bible of things that need to be done." He discovered that most home insurance policies specify that water and electricity must be shut off if the house isn't occupied for 15 consecutive days. Similarly, warrantees can be voided if the appliances covered go unused for months at a time. "You can buy a top-of-the-line dishwasher, but if it sits for four months, the motor will seize up," Fuld explains. "So I run the dishwasher once a month - on the shortest cycle possible because we're all conscious of the [declining water level in the] Kinneret." Each week, Fuld and two staffers check every client's light bulbs, flush their toilets, run every faucet briefly, work the blinds, inspect the ceiling for evidence of leaks, and make sure that Internet and cable TV access are up and running for whenever the homeowner may visit. "Every appliance that has to work on a few hours' notice has to be checked," he says. Fuld's customers generally authorize him to open bills and bank statements. "It happens that clients who've had credit card theft in America forget to call me, and then the automatic payments they have arranged here are not going through. Or sometimes the electric company charges a fee based on an estimated rather than an actual meter reading." Fluent in Hebrew, which many of his clients do not speak, Fuld aims to smooth out problems and handle repairs. "I want my clients to come home without worrying that something's wrong. If I see a problem, I call in an expert. There's already a solution rolling before I tell them there's a problem." It's no secret that empty Jerusalem luxury apartments are at high risk for burglary. Because he's the one who often discovers the crime, Fuld is acquainted with the local police detectives. "The worst part of my job is having to inform an owner that there's been a break-in," he says. On his advice, many absentee owners have installed alarm systems. But despite common practice, Fuld refuses any sort of finder's fee from contractors. The same goes for the crew of independent electricians, plumbers, painters and cleaning personnel he calls on for his clients. "I never take a percentage," says Fuld. "That policy has shaped my business. Yes, I could be making more money if I did that, but if I choose to bring a professional to my client's house based on what they're feeding my pocket, who am I serving - myself or my client?" He doesn't advertise and says he looks forward to losing customers as they make aliya. Fuld operates Home & Guardian with help from his wife, Ruthie, at his home office in the Shomron settlement of Kohav Hashahar.